The following is a condensation of “Creative Reconstruction of the Technological Society,” in the forthcoming book Sustainability Beyond Technology (Oxford Univ Press). Visit Dr. Skrbina’s website for more information.
Technology is our glory and our curse. With simple stone tools and controlled use of fire, we conquered the savannah and established ourselves as the dominant animal on Earth. With just a few metals and basic construction techniques, we built the pyramids and the Parthenon. By turning coal and oil into useable energy, we spread our influence across the planet. With mathematics and science, we learned to fly — through the air, and to the moon. We figured out how to split the atom, thus creating both ‘clean’ atomic energy and the atomic bomb. The use of electricity led to light bulbs, telephones, radio, television, computers, cell phones, and the Internet. And all the while, our numbers grew: from a pre-historic figure of some 10 million globally, to around 7.7 billion today. By all appearances, it is a story of unconditional success.
But appearances do not match reality. Technology’s growth has indeed been spectacular throughout human history, but the cost has been very high. Consider first the global ecosystem. Nature is everywhere under threat by technological civilization. Humans have now appropriated up to 40% of the net primary productivity of the Earth, which represents the total surplus plant energy driving the global ecosystem. We now cultivate around 25% of the total land area, and we have altered or modified over 80% of it. Our food animals — mostly cows, pigs, and chickens — now constitute around 20% of the total Earth animal biomass. As a consequence, something like 20% of vertebrate species are threatened with extinction, as are around 40% of amphibians. About 60% of the total higher animal (vertebrate) population has been eliminated in just the past 50 years. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are roughly 45% higher than their long-term average, virtually guaranteeing global warming, climate disruption, and sea-level rise. By some estimates, it would take the Earth five to seven million years to recover from the damage caused by human technology — if it stopped today.
In the specifically human realm, things are little different. By several measures, human health and well-being are suffering at the hands of our technological society. Cancer, for instance, is a modern technological disease; it was almost nonexistent prior to the Middle Ages. Most troubling is the increase in childhood cancers: US rates are up around 25% over the past 40 years, and occurrences in the UK are up 40% in just the past 16 years. Today we have many new cancer treatments, it’s true, but technology gets no credit for ‘solving’ problems that it itself created. The same holds with obesity, which was virtually unknown before the 1600s. Yes, small pox, leprosy, and the plague no longer take a toll, but other ailments have more than taken their places. Today we must deal with new issues: diabetes, HIV/AIDS, SARS, bird flu, mad cow disease, drug-resistant bacteria, and Covid pandemics, to name just a few. Apologists like to respond that we have new medicines and medical treatments to address these things, but once again, a technological system that produces illness gets no credit for attempting to cure them.
And all this is not to mention a vast array of psychological illnesses. Once again we find that new ailments appear, or dramatically expand. Depression is a major problem in modern society, severely affecting at least 11% of Americans over age 12; some 37% of British girls report symptoms of depression and anxiety. Like cancer and obesity, depression was virtually unknown in the ancient and pre-modern world. And it’s not just depression; autism, bipolar disorder, ADHD, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, eating disorders — all are significantly on the increase in recent decades. And then there are the more subtle psychological effects. Anti-social behavior, sleep disorders, OCD, “difficulty enjoying life,” “reluctance to go to work,” infidelity, risky social behaviors, drug use, anxiety, tech addiction, decreased empathy, psychosis, schizophrenia — all on the rise. Evidence is now accumulating that social media use, among other technologies, is a causal factor in many of these maladies. And ubiquitous manmade radiation — deriving from myriad devices like household wireless routers and power lines to 5G transmitters — is another huge unknown cause. In sum, modern technology has created a consumer wonderland but a moral, physical, and psychological wasteland.
Why is this? Why the growing threats to humanity and nature? If technology is beneficial to human health and well-being (as we are told), and if it is rapidly advancing (as it undeniably is), then human well-being ought to be rapidly improving. But it’s not. In fact, it’s bad and getting worse. If technology produces wonderful environmental devices such as electric cars, wind generators, and solar cells, not to mention advanced biosciences that help us understand the planetary ecosystem, then the state of the Earth’s environment ought to be rapidly improving. Instead, like human health, it’s in steep decline. If technology is under our control, and if it works for our benefit, things should be rapidly getting better. But instead, they are rapidly getting worse. This fact alone is damning for our entire technological civilization.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, our problems will multiply in the near future. Autonomous drones, advanced or ‘super-intelligent’ AI, self-replicating nano-machines, augmented- or virtual-reality, and genetically-engineered organisms, at a minimum, all pose potentially catastrophic risks. Humanity will thus soon be confronted with multiple, simultaneous threats from advanced technology.
Things are so dire that some are predicting either the outright collapse of advanced human civilization, or worse, the outright extinction of the human race. In either case, the wonderful ‘gains’ of technology will have proven utterly worthless. This would be the ultimate irony, and perhaps the ultimate justice: a technological civilization that, through advanced technology, destroys itself.
Technology as Root Cause
The situation is grim but not hopeless. We can envision a truly sustainable and fulfilling future existence, but it will require, at a minimum, a highly-restrained technological sphere; a small and stable human population; and a dramatic expansion of protected wilderness areas.
First, though, let me establish some basic facts. Humanity and the planet face multiple simultaneous disaster scenarios, and in every case, the root cause is advanced technology. Every major problem before us is, at its core, a technological problem. Pollution, deforestation, toxic wastes, ubiquitous radiation, soil erosion — all caused or enabled, directly or indirectly, by advanced modern technology.
This fact has independent confirmation, by major institutions and thinkers. Oxford University’s Global Challenges Fund issued a report in 2015 identifying the 12 primary threats to human existence. Of these 12, nine are essentially technological: climate change, nuclear war, global pandemic, ecological collapse, economic or social collapse, synthetic biology, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and unforeseeable technological consequences. In early 2016, Stephen Hawking stated that “most threats to humans come from science and technology”. Two year prior, he and three others observed that advanced artificial intelligence is “potentially our worse mistake in history”. That same year Elon Musk remarked that “with artificial intelligence, we are summoning the demon,” calling it “our biggest existential threat”. Then in 2017, the World Economic Forum released a “Global Risks” report, noting that several emerging technologies carry either “moderate” (3D printing, nano-materials, virtual reality, neuro-technologies, quantum computing) or “high” risk (geo-engineering, bio-technologies, AI/robotics). Technology, then, is at the root of all our major problems.
To be clear, the problem is not technology per se. Humans have used ‘technology’ for over 2 million years, as long as the genus Homo has been in existence — if only in the form of stone hand tools, simple clothing, and controlled use of fire. For 2 million years, our technologies were simple, natural, non-toxic, and truly sustainable. They did not allow our numbers to explode, and they did not systematically drive other species into extinction, or despoil the planet.
Things changed when we began industrial use of coal in the 1700s and oil in the 1800s. These fossil fuels released vast stores of energy — energy that Nature thought best left underground. Burning them not only unleashed large-scale power machinery upon the Earth, but it also had two other major effects: it drove the development of electrical generators (and hence the widespread use of electricity), and it began the process of global pollution that now threatens the entire climate. High speed transportation, communication technologies, computers, and cell phones are all logical and inevitable consequences of industrial fossil fuel usage and modern electric power.
The problem, then, seems to be with specifically modern technology — which I take to mean the widespread use of fossil fuels and electricity. Any movement toward sustainability must address the vast problems inaugurated by precisely these modern technologies.
The Nature of Modern Technology
Technology apologists typically respond to these charges in two predictable ways. First, they say, technology isn’t inherently bad, nor is it inherently good; rather, it’s something neutral. Any given technology is merely a tool, device, or technique that can be used for good or bad. The problem is with us, they say, not with the technology. If we make poor use of it, bad outcomes will occur.
Their second reply usually goes something like this: Technology is not the problem, it’s the solution. If we have pollution, we need cleaner technology. If certain technologies are dangerous, we need to invent newer, better, safer technologies. After all, they say, technology has taken us out of the Dark Ages and into a truly liberating modern world. Food technologies feed us; medical technologies cure us; entertainment technologies amuse and delight us; communication technologies connect us; industrial technologies enrich us. Technology is the source of our social wealth and power. The apologists’ bottom line is this: No matter the nature of the problem, the solution is always the same: more technology.
At first glance, these seem like reasonable replies. But they don’t hold up. When we press a bit deeper into the nature of technology, we find that it is far from neutral. For technology to be neutral, at least five conditions must hold: (1) its use must be optional; (2) it must have predictable consequences; (3) it must have manageable risks; (4) it must produce a clear net gain; and most importantly (5) it must be under human control. In fact, modern technology fails on all five counts.
Technology is, by any practical measure, absolutely mandatory in present-day society. If one wants to move around, go to school, communicate with family and friends, hold a job, or simply eat, one is compelled to use advanced modern technology. Just consider things like cell phones or the Internet. Not long ago — say, 25 years — such things were virtually unheard of in everyday society. As late as the early 1990s, virtually no one, anywhere in the world, used email, cell phones, or the Internet on a regular basis. Now, 5 billion people have access to mobile technology. There are now roughly 7 billion mobile phones in use on the planet. For those in industrial nations, use of such advanced technologies is functionally compulsory on a daily basis — often for hours per day. ‘Voluntary’ use (entertainment, social media) adds yet more hours per day. Hence we see the growing phenomenon of “Internet addiction,” which now afflicts between 2% and 8% of people in modern nations, with certain vulnerable subgroups — like youthful gamers — now approaching 40%.
On the unpredictable nature of consequences and risks, it has been clear for decades that the effects of advanced technology cannot be truly anticipated. A few examples are instructive. As far back as the late 1800s, asbestos was considered a cheap and ideal insulation material; unfortunately, it’s also highly toxic to humans, causing aggressive and often fatal cancers that weren’t acknowledged until the 1970s. The use of DDT, Aldrin, Endrin, and other postwar chemicals in residential areas in the 1950s and 1960s was thought to be a benign way to control insects; instead they led to mass die-off among wild animals and caused unknown long-term toxic effects on humans. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were considered an ideal refrigerant and spray-can propellant because they were non-toxic and non-flammable; unfortunately, they also collect in the upper atmosphere for decades, destroying the ozone layer that protects the Earth from dangerous ultraviolet radiation. Antibiotics like penicillin were developed in the 1930s and 1940s to combat bacterial infections and save lives; unfortunately, they also led to the emergence of highly potent antibiotic-resistant diseases like MRSA and XDR-TB. Such stories are myriad.
And these are all relatively straightforward technologies. The problem of side-effects compounds exponentially as the technology becomes more potent and complex. We can’t even begin to assess the risks of widespread 5G, advanced AI, replicating nano-devices, genetically-engineered organisms, and so on.
Furthermore, every technological product embodies a specific set of values: about the intrinsic usefulness or goodness of technology, about its inevitability, about the broadly technological or mechanistic worldview of modern society, and about the suitability of control and manipulation of information and energy. Consider a typical commercial for Apple iPhones. Apple is not simply selling phones. They are also selling an idea: that iPhones are an essential part of modern society. They are selling the idea that high tech is fun, good, useful, and cool. And they are selling a technological worldview: that advanced technology is inevitable and irreplaceable; that civilized man is a technological animal; and that technology is our source of wealth, stability, and security. In this sense, technology becomes an object of secular devotion — our new god, as it were.
By all accounts, then, modern technology is intrinsically dangerous. It functions irrespective of any concerns regarding human or natural well-being. It is powerful. It progresses in an accelerating fashion. It follows its own rules, not ours. And to the extent that humans have some influence in this process, it is, thus far, to drive technology to the lowest common denominator — to the most dangerous, the most powerful, the most profitable, the most unsustainable. The hazards here are self-evident.
Taken seriously, this analysis calls for radical and dramatic action on the part of humanity. I take it for granted that there is no single ‘quick fix’ to this problem of modern technology. Action must be sustained, over decades, if we are to succeed. And our goals must aim at the very long term, if we are to attain a truly sustainable existence on this planet.
Modern technology is inherently unsustainable. Nothing in our history suggests otherwise. It cannot be controlled, and it cannot be reformed. Therefore, the only logical conclusion is that it must be relinquished. Slowly and gradually, perhaps, but relinquished all the same. To have a chance at long-term survival, humanity will have to return to simple, natural, and sustainable tools.
To this end, I suggest a new concept: creative reconstruction. Humanity should deliberately and consciously aim at a gradual roll-back of technology, to a state at which it is long-term sustainable. This has necessary concurrent conditions relating to population and nature. Our collective task is to create a forward-looking path — to creatively reconstruct conditions that will allow deep sustainability for humanity and nature.
Based on the above analysis, creative reconstruction clearly implies a technical state prior to the Industrial Revolution, which began circa 1750. It must also exclude the key enabling technologies of coal-fired furnaces and steam engines, both of which came into use around 1700. But we must retrench further still, because any near-industrial state would be in danger of lapsing back into a self-evolving cycle of modern development. The preceding two or three centuries saw far fewer technical advances; the microscope, the musket, ocean-going ships, the printing press all came into usage at this time, and all opened pathways to modern technology. Going back a bit further, we come upon perhaps the decisive technological innovation: the modern clock, which appeared in Europe around 1250. I tend to agree with Lewis Mumford: “The clock, not the steam-engine, is the key-machine of the modern industrial age”. If the clock is the decisive development of the modern era, then, I argue, this is the level to which we should aspire. Only truly pre-modern technologies are deeply sustainable.
It took humanity some 800 years to advance from the modern clock to the present day, via a process of slow, methodical, and persistent innovation. If we are to creatively restore such a state, we must again be slow, methodical, and persistent. It goes without saying that we could not do so quickly — nor would we wish to. Rapid retrenchment would be disastrous for humanity. But a deliberate, well-planned, and gradual retrenchment would not. Let’s be generous. Let’s give ourselves a full century — 100 years — to accomplish the task. Let’s develop a 100-year plan to creatively reconstruct a technological society that can survive for 10,000 years. Surely the reward is worth the effort.
What would life be like, at that point? It must seem an unbearable and inconceivable existence to most of us today. But of course, we are talking 100 years in the future; very few people alive today would be around for those final days. Only today’s youngest children would make it to that day, and they would be raised in a milieu aiming for that very goal. They would be educated for creative reconstruction, and would actively contribute to it. They would see technological devolution as normal and natural, just as everyone today sees technological progress as normal. And once they were able to comprehend the near-disaster that was averted, they would willingly and joyfully proceed in their task. There is much to be gained.
Population and Nature
In addition to a lower-tech global society, there are two other conditions for deep sustainability. One is reduced global population, which should occur commensurately with a technological roll-back. The Earth never evolved to handle 8 billion humans, but if we give ourselves 100 years to reduce our numbers, it would be eminently and peacefully attainable. Just a few percent reduction per year, over a century, would get us back to pre-industrial levels of population — say, in the range of 500 million.
The second co-condition is restoration of vast wilderness areas across the globe. With many fewer people and much simpler technology, this will occur almost automatically. But we can start now, today, to restore wilderness in all bioregions. At a minimum, we should aim for a target that has been promoted for some four decades already: half-Earth, or the notion that half the planet should be set aside as wilderness. Once again, given 100 years in which to act, we can achieve this objective with relative ease. Currently around 15% of the planet is protected. To get to 50% wilderness, we must increase protected land by about one percent per year. For a committed humanity, this is readily achievable.
My proposal may seem extreme, but our situation is extreme. We are facing radical change, whether we act toward creative reconstruction or not. Advancing technology will raise increasingly unexpected and uncontrollable problems, likely faster than we or the planet can respond. If we continue the status quo, the radical change forced upon us will be dangerous and chaotic. If we take a radical but rational path of reconstruction, we will be able to avoid the worst outcomes, and we and our fellow creatures will survive indefinitely.
We must keep in mind three essential facts. One: The world will stop using fossil fuels within 100 years — period. The fixed supply is shrinking and becoming ever-harder to access. In fact, the energy required to access fossil fuel is quickly approaching the point where it exceeds the energy value of the fuel itself. Then the entire extraction process will grind to a halt. We can either carefully and rationally plan for that event, or wait until it hits us between the eyes.
Two: The technological system may well implode of its own accord, regardless of our wishes. There are so many instabilities in the system, and so many potential disaster scenarios, that we may very well face massive technological retrenchment, no matter what we do. Needless to say, a planned and rational rollback is much preferred to an unplanned, chaotic, and uncontrolled collapse.
Three: Under no circumstances can 8 billion of people survive on this planet in the long-run: not in a high-tech wonderland, not as frugal and efficient consumers, not as hunter-gatherers. There is no remotely realistic alternative future with this many people. The 22nd century Earth will have far fewer humans than it does today, if it has any at all. These three facts alone strongly argue for a reconstructive solution.
Obviously there are many details to be worked out. But the time for endless wrangling is over. Let me be blunt: Technology is killing us, and it’s killing the planet. It’s growing exponentially stronger as humanity and nature grow weaker. It doesn’t take much analysis to see where we are heading. But any plan that does not radically rein in modern technology will almost certainly fail. And we have only a small window of time in which to begin action — a window that grows ever-smaller by the day.
Toward a Better, Low-Tech Future
Consider what a reconstructed life would be like. Without high power transportation, communities would return to their natural, small, human-scale. Large cities with their unsustainable and inhumanly-large buildings would eventually crumble, decay, and cease to exist, as would cities in deserts or otherwise inhospitable settings. People would migrate to small towns and medium-sized cities, particularly ones located near fresh water and farmland.
Food would become paramount. A sustainable society would thrive on fresh local produce, local preserves, and a minimum of imports from afar. Local agriculture would once again be entirely organic, just as it was for the 10,000 years prior to the mid-20th century. Acknowledging the ecological, health, and ethical unsustainability of meat production, farmers would focus almost exclusively on plant products — vegetables, fruits, nuts, grains, and legumes — with perhaps limited and small-scale production of eggs and dairy. There would be strong emphasis on indigenous and native food-producing plants which, being the most sustainable, would form the core of the local food system. There would be virtually nothing like “industrial” agriculture, and almost nothing for export or foreign sale. Diversity of food plants would be an imperative, to avoid risks such as crop failure.
Economically, large corporations would be replaced by small- and family-run businesses that were organized to meet local needs. Mass production would be all but nonexistent. Politically, lacking in the ability to conduct and enforce large-scale state or national units, society would be compelled to decentralize. Political power would devolve to towns, cities, and small states.
Broadly speaking, a simplified, low-tech, small-scale society can provide everything people need for complete and fulfilling lives: music and dance, arts and theater, schools and literature. Vigorous health, both mental and physical. Meaningful relationships. Interactions with a clean, vibrant, and diverse natural environment. Love, play, recreation. Intellectual stimulation and deep, meaningful conversation. A stress-free life. Sleep. Relaxation. Sanity.
And perhaps most important of all: time. One of the great casualties of our technological age has been time: time spent, time wasted, time lost. This, of course, is a great irony; technology was supposed to do things for us, make our lives easier, save us time. Instead it did the exact opposite: it destroyed time on a colossal scale. People in all walks of life today are harried, frazzled, sleep-deprived, triple-jobbed, and deadlined into oblivion. We must never forget: Our time is our life. In destroying time, technology destroys our lives.
Such is the case for creative reconstruction. Modern technology was a nice experiment. We tried it, and failed. It’s time to try something new.